The Current

Should Canada's public golf courses be converted to parks and affordable housing?

Vancouver is debating the future of its three full-length public golf courses, part of a trend across Canada as less people golf and conversations grow about whether those spaces might be better used.

The trend has caught on in the U.S. and is starting to gather steam in Canada

The 13th hole at Langara Golf Course, 1 of 6 public courses in Vancouver. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

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Is it time to tear down public golf courses and convert them into spaces that more people actually use?

The idea is picking up steam across Canada, with advocates calling for city-owned courses to be repurposed into public parks, track-and-field areas and affordable housing.

"We have to ask ourselves: Who is the city for? Who gets to use city spaces?" Charles Montgomery, an urbanist and the author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, told The Current's Anne Penman.

"And are we using this land efficiently when we're in the heart of a major North American city, and we have a crisis of affordability and housing — and a crisis of equity in access to high quality parks and services?"

Hopping the fence 

On a recent, drizzly day, Montgomery brought Penman on a tour of the Langara Golf Course in Vancouver, inviting her to flout the rules and jump over the low wooden fence into the park's paid zone.

"If you hop that fence, you get yelled at — as I did this morning — or you can pay," he said, with fees at nearly $50 per game in the summer.

"You have to pay to play. So this isn't really a public space." 

CBC Network producer Anne Penman, left with urbanist Charles Montgomery, after sneaking into the public Langara Golf Course in Vancouver. (Anne Penman)

The Vancouver Park Board is opening up public consultation on possible alternative uses of Langara, one of the city's three publicly-funded full-length golf courses, in the new year.

Earlier this fall, two University of British Columbia academics also proposed turning the courses into a mix of park space and housing for up to 60,000 people.

"We have a housing crisis. We don't have a golf course crisis," Patrick Condon and Scott Hein wrote in The Tyee.

In fact, if there is a golf course crisis, it's that people aren't golfing anymore. According to Golf Canada, the sport's governing body, 51 courses closed between 2015 and 2018 across the country.

Montgomery envisions a second life for Langara, where the greens would become a public park, the parking lot would be converted into space for temporary modular housing, and eventually the surrounding area would be rezoned for more dense residential development.

Such a redevelopment would allow "thousands more people [to] enjoy a truly public space," he said.

A slide from a talk by Charles Montgomery on Vancouver public spaces, where he highlighted the size of Vancouver's full-length public golf courses: McCleery (left), Langara (centre) and Fraserview (right). (Charles Montgomery)

Not everyone agrees with Montgomery. Tricia Barker, a Vancouver Park Board commissioner, said the golf courses are an essential social outlet for many seniors in the city.

"Because of the work that I do with the seniors, because of that community and their love of playing golf, I hear about golf courses all the time and the passionate plea of keeping the Park Board's golf courses where they can afford to play," she said at a November meeting.

But the conversation is par for the course across Canada.

In 2018, Toronto mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat proposed converting three city golf courses into public parks.

A controversial real estate redevelopment on part of a private Surrey, B.C. golf course was greenlit last year, while a similar project is putting the private Glen Abbey golf course in a legal battle with the Town of Oakville, Ont.

From golf course to green space

Many golf courses across the United States are already being transformed into townhouses, green spaces teeming with native plants, or "agrihoods" that build housing developments around farms.

"I think you're going to see a lot more of these examples where [this] land is going to be transformed into other uses," Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C., told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

McMahon said he believes that these golf course conversions are "certainly a part of the solution" to the housing crisis being felt in cities all over North America. 

"Land costs are the major thing driving housing costs," he said. "And so we've got to take innovative looks at where we can find land that's not going to be that expensive, and publicly-owned golf courses are one of those assets that we can look to."

Experts are urging Vancouver to sell off three public golf courses in order to develop new housing. 2:00

While many residents near a golf course may first bristle at the thought of getting rid of it, McMahon said there are ways to convince people of the benefits of making the switch.

Several years ago, his organization surveyed people who owned property on golf course developments, and discovered that the majority of residents didn't actually play golf.

When asked why they bought homes there, many said that they liked the view, or living beside protected green space. 

"It was kind of like an 'aha' moment. It was like, well duh," he said. "What's it cost to build a golf course? Millions of dollars. What's it cost to maintain a golf course? Millions of dollars. What's it cost to leave some of the open space alone in the first place? Well, almost nothing." 

"And so that began a movement, certainly here in the United States and across North America really, to build golf course developments without the golf course."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Anne Penman and Peter Mitton.


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